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January 02, 2013

Looper/Primer Reviews

So I've been waiting for Looper to be available on DVD. I finally saw it last night.

Very very meh. And it got such great reviews.

What I liked about the movie was that it tried to be a "real movie" science fiction movie. By "real movie," I mean it wasn't just a carnival attraction, a Universal Studios Theme Park ride without the actual ride part. 95% of movie science fiction is just that -- they dial up the comedy, action, and fantasy levels so high that the movie winds up being completely artificial. A funhouse attraction -- fun, maybe, if done well, but no one mistakes a funhouse for a genuine experience. Everything in it is designed to activate one of most primal and childlike responses -- laugh, cringe, say "Whoa."

Looper tries to be more like a real movie. I'm 99.9% sure Rian Johnson had in mind his own type of Philip K. Dick story. One thing Philip K. Dick does (I think) is casually introduce some crazy premise and just say: This is how it is. He doesn't defend it, he doesn't argue about it. It's just this way, okay? Accept it or don't.

Looper does that with both its time-travel premise (which is rickety and crazy enough-- in the future, they send people back in time to be executed? Really?) and the early introduction of a completely unrelated sci-fantasy premise, that in the future, about 10% of the population is telekinetic, but only comically so, able to levitate light coins and perform other useless tricks.

Well, as in Philip K. Dick, whether or not you buy these wacky premises determines whether you can enjoy the story. I didn't buy into either.


But the movie displeased me in other ways. I don't mind a little creative pilfering, but Looper swipes major and minor premises from other time-travel movies, including The Terminator and 12 Monkeys and the very underrated, very twisty time-travel movie Frequency.

And Bruce Willis, of course, was in 12 Monkeys.

It also borrows from a famous Twilight Zone episode and a major ongoing movie franchise which I won't mention because I don't want to spoil things. But major elements of the middle and ending were already done, almost exactly the same way, in a big well-regarded science-fantasy movie that everyone's already seen.

It's not a rule that the hero must be likable, but when you've written an unlikable hero, you're certainly increasing the difficulty factor for yourself. If the hero doesn't make for a strong rooting interest, you have to make sure everything else is so compelling that the viewer is still interested despite not liking the hero. For me, it wasn't.

And although the movie tries to be a "real movie," with real people, real drama, and genuine realness, it wasn't ever real for me, so I found the efforts to treat this material seriously... misplaced. Its tone of gritty "realness" seemed unearned to me, because it just wasn't real.

It reminded me of how Monk used to be written. There were three elements designed to draw the audience in Monk-- Comedy, Cleverness of mystery or its solution, and emotional stuff/mythology stuff about Monk's enduring love of his wife and her unsolved murder. Now, most good episodes had two of these elements, but not all three; poor episodes had only one, or none at all.

It was a frequent occurrence on Monk that the mystery element was either not terribly clever or else highly derivative, swiped from Agatha Cristie or Columbo. So, you'd seen it -- possibly four or five times before. And when this happened, I think -- when the mystery of an episode was pretty weak, and they had no good comedy bits to make up for it-- the showrunners would say "Put something with Trudy in here, pull some heartstrings. We need something more here; the script won't stand on its own as it is. Let's make Monk remember the first day he met Trudy in flashback. Wait, we've done the first meeting? Okay, let's make it... the first time he took her to the Museum of Vacuums and Cleaning Supplies. Have we done the Vacuum Museum yet?"

And while some of the emotional bits with Trudy were touching, other times they felt like filler or like replays of things we'd seen before. When these didn't work, they didn't feel organic or real. They felt like a cheap attempt at compensation-- when you haven't thought of anything clever to tickle the brain, go to the easy limbic-system play of trying to evoke sympathy.

That's the whole ending of Looper for me-- Johnson failed to come up with something both clever and new (as I said, the clever bits were not new, but pretty well-done in 12 Monkeys), so he tried for the cheap emotional stuff, and to me it felt forced. It was all kind of silly, like Monk, and silly's best form is "Clever." Not profound or moving. "Merely clever" could have worked -- a bloop single that gets you on base. But the film has trouble hitting that single, so it hacks for an emotional home run, or at least a "deep" one, and flies out.

I just don't know if a movie with this goofy a premise can try for deep or moving. Though I guess Source Code managed it, somewhat.

I was disappointed in the movie and looked up its Wikipedia entry to see if I'd missed anything, and there I saw a reference to Primer, a movie commenters keep talking about which I'd never seen. So I rented it. I don't know how I feel about it -- I feel like I definitely have missed something, and won't know whether I like it or not until I understand exactly what the heck happened in the film. Not only is the time-travel in this film particularly twisty and complicated, but the film deliberately makes it more difficult to understand by never having a character clearly explain the rules or implications of how time-travel works; it's all "explained" obliquely and by very subtle and vague inference. A critic wrote you'd have to see it two or three times to even almost understand what's going on, and that (for me at least) has turned out to be correct.

The whole movie was shot for $7000. Seven thousand. Almost all the money just went to film stock, and they were on such a tight budget they could only afford two takes per scene. The filmmaker was apparently entirely self-taught and just decided he'd make a time-travel movie for $7000. That right there is pretty interesting.

I don't know yet if I can recommend it as an actual movie experience. It's definitely recommendable as an interesting experiment (if you go for interesting experiments). The guy made a movie for $7000 and it looks pretty decent (for $7000), and seems to have some thought put into it.

Maybe too much. I don't understand what the hell happened. But I guess that's something different for a movie, huh?

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posted by Ace at 02:34 PM

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